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[Column] Grasp American posture in policy toward Taiwan

Posted March. 28, 2001 22:27,   


While Koreans are understandably focused on relations with North Korea today, it might be well for people in Seoul to glance south toward Taiwan, where a critical test of the new American administration’s posture in Asia is rapidly taking shape.

President George W. Bush met in Washington last week with Vice Premier Qian Qichen to being fashioning his administration’s relations with China. Central to that question is the fate of Taiwan, the island claimed by China but whose citizens appear eager to remain apart from the mainland. Qian repeated China’s claim and suggested Beijing might resort to force to take Taiwan while Bush repeated that any solution must be peaceful and have the assent of the Taiwanese.

The immediate question is what arms sales to Taiwan will President Bush approve within the next month; that decision will be a strong indicator of the administration’s policy toward Asia. The Chinese have urged the president not to approve anything and warned that the sale of advanced weapons could lead to more Chinese belligerence. Longer run, the question is whether the U.S. would help to defend Taiwan against a clearly unprovoked attack by China.

Korea has a direct interest in how President Bush forges this policy as it will go far to certifying American commitments to Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, all of which have security treaties with the U.S.

In the long run, perhaps the most important reason the U.S. should help to defend Taiwan lies not only in the Taiwan question but in American relations with the rest of Asia. For the U.S. to back down when confronted with PRC military force would damage, perhaps fatally, the standing of the U.S. as a power in the Western Pacific. Asian nations with which the U.S. has treaties would most likely conclude that they could not count on the U.S. and would thus seek to accommodate Beijing.

In addition, a failure to assist Taiwan could be seen in the U.S. as a violation of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that is the law of the land in the U.S. While the TRA does not absolutely commit the US to the defense of Taiwan, it goes all but the last step in that direction. To fail to uphold that law would open the administration to enormous legal and political pressures.

Taiwan’s strategic location has a direct bearing on Korean security. Great quantities of oil for Korea come through the South China Sea, over large parts of which China has claimed sovereignty. Taiwan sits astride the only two northern exits to those shipping lanes. The prospect of a hostile China gaining a stranglehold on that vital waterway should give pause to Korea, Japan, and the U.S.

There are less visible reasons that Taiwan is becoming a test. Like Korea, Taiwan has made long strides toward democracy in the last decade. For the U.S. to abandon an emerging democracy would be to violate basic American principles and bring into question U.S. support for democracy not only in Asia but throughout the world.

Similarly, another basic American principle is self-determination, even if the U.S. is inconsistent in applying that doctrine. Over the past year, American rhetoric on the China-Taiwan issue has begun to include an assertion that any solution to the Taiwan question must be achieved with the assent of the people in Taiwan, a statement that should be welcomed in Asia.

Lastly, the U.S. has economic ties to Taiwan and to put those in jeopardy would raise a question about whether the U.S. would defend its economic interests in Korea and elsewhere. The U.S. exports more to Taiwan than to the PRC, which is surprising given the relative sizes of the two markets. The US relies on high tech imports from Taiwan and any disruption of that source would immediately affect the U.S. economy.

Lastly, American support for Taiwan is by no means assured. Some Americans ask whether a short-term relationship with an island populated by 23 million is worth long-term Cold War hostility with a nation of 1.3 billion people. That sentiment echoes Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain when he reported to the House of Commons in 1938 after he gave the Nazi German dictator, Adolf Hitler, a green light to conquer Czechoslovakia.

Chamberlain sought to justify his appeasement by asserting: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

After which, Winston Churchill was heard to mutter: "The government had to choose between shame and war. They chose shame and they will get war."

As was so often the case, Churchill was right. Let`s hope that Americans, Koreans, and other Asians have learned the lesson.

Richard Halloran, former foreign correspondent of the New York Times in Asia, independent writer contributing to Asian issues